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Brazil: Making a child murder into a media show

Isabela Nardoni On the night of March 29, 5 year-old Isabella Nardoni was found dying in the front garden of the apartment block where she lived with her father, her stepmother and her two half-siblings, in a middle class neighborhood in São Paulo. The caretaker found Isabella after she apparently fell out of her room window. Moments later, her father is said to have rushed into the garden, saying that someone must have thrown her through the window while he was downstairs helping his wife, Isabella's stepmother, bring their two sleeping children from the car in the garage to the apartment. Minutes later, Isabella died in the ambulance.

A criminal investigation followed, and police questioned the father's and stepmother's versions of the story. There is conflicting evidence. The case has received nonstop coverage[Pt] on Brazilian blogs and big media. There is still a long way for the investigation to go before a verdict, but many suspect Isabella's father and his wife may be the young girl's murderers.

This version of the facts has been repeated over and over in the last few days by Rede Globo, Folha de São Paulo, Estado de São Paulo and many other Brazilian TV stations and newspapers, not to mention on thousands of blogs around Brazil.

In the past, major Brazilian mainstream media groups haven't always been careful when branding this or that suspect guilty of a crime. The Brazilian police and investigation bureaus have often been pressured into giving the media information and statements designed to make individuals under investigation look guilty in the eyes of the public before the investigations are concluded. If, at the end of the official investigation, it is revealed that the real culprit was someone else, the same newspapers have rarely bothered to correct these mistakes, quickly moving on to the next playoff goal, political scandal or horrible death.

And the media circus and finger pointing is ramping up yet again in the case of Isabella Nardoni. Guilty or innocent of the horrible crime, Isabella's father and stepmother have already been declared guilty under the spotlight of Brazilian newspapers and TV shows, and one of the greatest supporters of these statements is the public prosecutor working on the case, Francisco Cembranelli, who has given many interviews suggesting that he does believe the investigations will establish the couple guilty of the murder.

Let's check in on what the Brazilian blogosphere thinks about the case.

C.Fagundes, from e-esquina [Pt], came up with this image, linking Rede Globo‘s coverage of the crime with the Big Brother Brasil reality show, aired on the same station:

Big Murder Brazil

The image reads “Big-who-killed-the-girl-Brother-Brasil”.

Ismael, from O Malfazejo 2.0 (“The Evildoer 2.0″), also makes a joke about Rede Globo's “reality-show interactivity” coverage of the crime [Pt]:

“Breve nos programas do horário nobre da Globo nova enquete interativa: Se você acha que o assassino de Isabela Nardoni é o pai, ligue para 0300-703-584-01. Para votar na madrasta, ligue para 0300-703-584-02. Para votar na mãe da menina, ligue para 0300-703-584-03. […] A ligação é gratuita.”

“Soon, during Globo's prime time program grid, a new interactive poll: If you think Isabela Nardoni's murderer is the father, call 0300-703-584-01. To vote for the stepmother, call 0300-703-584-02. To vote for the girls mother, call 0300-703-584-03. […] The call is toll free.”

On April 9th, Ricardo Noblat, a journalist who writes a blog hosted by – Rede Globo's Internet portal – wrote a post with breaking news [Pt] about the case:

“Foi o pai, Alexandre Nardoni, que jogou pela janela a filha Isabella Nardoni, de 5 anos. A informação foi dada esta tarde pelo promotor Francisco José Cembranelli em conversa reservada com um grupo de jornalistas. No passado o promotor foi professor de Alexandre. Refere-se a ele como “um vagabundo, que sempre viveu às custas do pai, um playboy”.”

“It was the father, Alexandre Nardoni, who threw his daughter, 5 years old Isabella Nardoni, trough the window. The information was given this afternoon by the prosecutor Francisco José Cembranelli in a private conversation with a group of journalists. In the past, the prosecutor had Alexandre as one of his students. He refers to him as “a slob, who always lived on his father expenses, a playboy”.”

Next day, when asked by reporters about the statements Noblat quoted him as saying, Cembranelli denied having said anything like that, and made personal attacks to the blogger-journalist Noblat. Right after this, more than 200 comments were made on Noblat's post – most of them accusing Noblat of fabricating news or standing over dubious sources to make his statements. Up to now, Noblat has been answering patiently to all comments, keeping his faith in his sources and in what he stated before, and accusing Cembranelli of denying falsely what he had effectively said before, in that conversation with journalists.

About prosecutor Cembranelli, Academia Brasileira de Idéias Confusas (“Brazilian Academy of Confused Thoughts”) writes the words below in their post entitled “which the biggest tragedy?” [Pt]:

“Já restou mais do que evidente a vontade de Francisco Cembranelli de ter a imagem associada ao um crime bárbaro para aparecer na mídia e ser lembrado pela participação em um caso de imensa repercussão nacional. Transparece, ainda, a vontade de que sejam, efetivamente, os pais os culpados pelo ocorrido, porque nessa hipótese o julgamento será espetacular, com mais holofotes e exposição pública. Se tudo isso decorre de mera vaidade ou se há no ar o cheiro de alguma vantagem decorrente do episódio, é uma incógnita. Em todo caso, parece desagradável que face a um crime tão bárbaro um ou outro sejam satisfeitos.”

“Francisco Cembranelli's desire for having his image associated with a savage crime, so that he can appear a lot in the media and be remembered by his participation in a case of immense country-wide repercussion is more than obvious. It is transparent, too, wishes for the parents to be effectively declared guilty of what happened, because in this case the trial will be spectacular, with even more spotlights and public exposure. Whether all this comes from mere vanity, or whether there is in the air the smell of some advantage to be derived from the episode, is a mystery. Either way, it's uncomfortable to feel that in face of such a terrible crime one or another may be satisfied.”

On the above post, Cranio comments [Pt]:

“Neste caso mais uma vez fico pensando se toda midiatização de uma tragédia familiar poderá trazer algum benefício à sociedade. […] será que alguém que pensava em atirar uma criança pela janela irá repensar sua atitude? Será que criaremos leis que impossibilitem este tipo de tragédia? Ou apenas não havia nada de inteligente para veicular nos telejornais e aproveitam-se do gosto por sangue que existe na maioria da população e com isto aumentar seu ibope?”

“In this case, I keep wondering if all this ‘mediatization’ of a familiar tragedy will bring any benefit to the society. [… ] would someone who may be thinking about throwing a kid out of the window rethink their attitude? Will we create laws that prevent such tragedies to ever happen again? Or maybe simply there wasn't anything intelligent to air on the TV news and they took advantage of the distinct ‘thirst for blood’ of a large part of our population, just to raise their audience?”

Guilherme Fiuza [Pt], a distinguished Brazilian blogger-journalist, experienced an ordeal somewhat similar to the one to which the Nardoni couple has been subjected. Eighteen years ago, he lost his newborn first son in a tragic domestic accident. At first, Fiuza and his ex-wife were accused of causing of the boy's death, and his neighbours and several people Fiuza says he had never seen before started fabricating stories confirming them as cold-blooded murderers, until it was proven they were innocent. Fiuza doesn't mention that he received any apologies. About his past experience and Isabella Nardoni's case, he writes [Pt]:

“Se não é possível à coletividade imaginar na sua própria pele o ardor da tragédia, já seria um belo avanço civilizatório se ela entendesse, de uma vez por todas, que a vida (dos outros) não é um Big Brother.”

“If it's not possible for people to imagine in their own skin the burning feeling of tragedy, it would be already a great civilized advance if they could understand, once and for all, that (others) lives are not a Big Brother.”

About the hurried interviews given by the Police Inspector responsible for the case, who told reporters that “the investigation is 70% concluded” since the early days after the death of Isabella, Fiuza adds [Pt]:

“A delegada do caso Isabella informou que 70% do crime estão esclarecidos. Notícia importante.
Mas, doutora delegada, e se nos últimos 30% aparecer um personagem novo confessando o assassinato? Nesse caso, doutora, seus atuais 70% serão iguais a zero.
Jamais se viu, em toda a história da investigação criminal, um caso 70% esclarecido. Das duas, uma: ou a delegada é uma revolucionária, ou é uma irresponsável.”

“The Police Inspector responsible for Isabella's case informs us that 70% of the crime has already been solved. This is important news. […] But, what happens if during the last 30% some new character shows up and admits the murder? In this case, lady, yours 70% are equal to zero. We have never seen, in all the criminal investigation history, a 70% solved case. Either the Inspector is a revolutionary, or she is irresponsible.”

Luiz Carlos Azenha, from Vi o Mundo (“I've seen the World”), is another eminent journalist who quit his mainstream media job to become a full time blogger. He reflects on the media's interest in this case [Pt]:

“A máquina de moer carne da mídia não pára. Precisa produzir continuamente. E produzir, sempre, algo sexy. Na pior acepção da palavra. Crianças defenestradas, arrastadas por automóveis, vale tudo desde que a morte tenha “valor” de venda. Ou seja, a morte de uma criança por desnutrição, aos poucos, bem diante do prédio da Folha de S. Paulo, na Barão de Limeira, tem valor zero na escala da notícia. Bebês mortos em reservas indígenas e em maternidades já se tornaram parte do trivial.”

“The media's meat-grinding machine never stops. It needs to produce continually. And to produce, always, something sexy — in the worst meaning of the word. Children being thrown through windows, or dragged by automobiles¹, anything goes as long as the death has some ‘market value’. That means that the death of a child by starvation, little by little, right in front of the Folha de S. Paulo's building, in the Barão de Limeira [avenue], has zero value in the news scale. Dead children in indigenous reserves, or in the child-care units, are already part of what is trivial.”

¹ (Translator's note: This is a mention of the João Helio case. Helio was a 6 year-old boy who died after being dragged outside his mother's car for seven miles in a car robbery. The case sparked a wave of demonstrations against the increase of criminality in Rio de Janeiro and calling for harsher penalties in the case of heinous crimes. The week of João Helio's death, another boy died in a similar way in another part of the country. No newspaper noticed it. Only blogs took note of the case, but I couldn't find any mention of it in recent times. It might have not made any difference, but João Hélio was middle-class and white, while the other unnamed victim was poorer, and of darker skin.)


  • […] aos navegantes: vamos ficar nojentos! O site Global Voices Online publicou uma matéria em que cita um texto aqui da ABRIC (”Qual a maior tragédia”) como referência no caso […]

  • Marcos

    There’s no doubt, there’s a lot of evidence that the father and stepmother have commited this awfull crime!
    Otherwise according to the “Murphy’s Law”, if someone else had broke into the appartment, it wil have a wittness certainly!!

  • Yes, there’s a lot of evidence incriminating the father and the stepmother. It’s fair for us to think they’re probably the murderers of the little girl. But we’re speaking as persons here, and every person has the right to an opinion on anything.

    But when the newspapers and TV stations begin to broadcast their (owners or editors) opinions as THE truth, then something is awfully wrong. The media must state clearly when they’re putting forward an opinion, and when they’re just relating the known facts. Mixing them up in not only bad journalism. It’s almost a crime.

  • Anita Bergmann

    It’s NOT a media show! It’s despair…
    Despair to watch for many many years that the so called “brazilian JUSTICE” is in reality only a case of having more or less DOLLARS!
    That’s all….

  • […] Dangerous Combination: Weak Democracy and Bad Media By danitocchetto This last week all we could hear about in the Brazilian media was the excessive coverage of Isabella Nardoni’s trial. Isabella was a five-year-old Brazilian girl who died in the first semester of 2008 due to a “fall” from her father’s sixth floor apartment in São Paulo. To get a brief summary of the whole tragedy, go here. As distressing as Isabella’s horrible end has been and still is, we are – or at least one would expect us to be – aware that it is only one of the many innocent children victims of unacceptable behavior by their parents. In 2008, right after her death, BBC News published a short article about the tragedy, emphasizing that “The case has prompted Brazilians to reflect on the kind of cruelty that adults seem capable of inflicting on children”. Well, that’s the kind of discussion one would expect from a strong democratic society of well informed and active citizens. Nonetheless, that was not the case in Brazil. Instead what we saw was an endless exposure of the little girl’s death as if it were merely a show, an isolated case in such a “fair” society as the Brazilian society. This last week we again passively watched the end of this “show”, closed last Friday with the condemnation of both her father and stepmother to about thirty years in prison. There were no debates about the rights of children in Brazil, about the conditions in which we inactively allow them to live, about the thousands that live in the streets with no parents, no love, no education, being mistreated every day of their young lives. This is what happens with a weak democracy composed of poorly educated people. The media should be playing the role of democracy’s right hand, but all we can see is sad episodes like this; never accompanied by any kind of serious debate and action. “The media’s meat-grinding machine never stops. It needs to produce continually. And to prod… […]

  • james

    Yes, pingback discussion about the rights of children in Brazil would be a great start. This is an issue that requires care and patience and support. There is, however, an issue of equal urgency – one that continues to evade us and I believe, is at the heart of the media madness that has been going on here in Brazil and indeed at the heart of the question of fulfilling “justice” in serious and disturbing cases like this. It is the baffling relationship we (all of us/communities/individuals) have with offenders. It is as if capturing and sentencing offenders has some redeeming impact…as if this can somehow make better this terrible tragedy. I remember reading on the front of a magazine here in Sao Paulo the day after the parents were convicted “Now, Isabela, you can rest in peace”. NO Isabella, a making sense of your tragic end and somehow healing the wound your parents have put on us all would help you rest in peace. No, now your memory has been messed with, dragged around….for what? Reading this front page made me feel sick. Not that the media was cashing in on the sentiment of the ordeal, but that this idea so clearly resonates with many of us. It’s as if we’d like to believe that punishing offenders is the answer to the problem. Well, I would say after how ever many years we have been trying it, the results and improvement of techniques are questionable. I have worked in gaols so I know they are better than they used to be but there is still along way to go and I think issue if addressed with care and patience could assist us to respond to such tragedies in a redemptive and meaningful way. There is a need to address the issue of our own perception of how we deal with offenders such as the parents of ISabella. Not only to prevent such a thing happening again, but also to understand it, to be able to find it, to sniff it out, to know the members of our communities and cities well enough and give a shit about them (preferably before they are committing something so terrible).

    No silver bullet here. Just a sincere concern and hope for our ability to find better ways to manage ourselves when the damage is done.

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